Food-chain length alters community responses to global change in aquatic systems

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Synergies between large-scale environmental changes, such as climate change1 and increased humic content (brownification)2, will have a considerable impact on future aquatic ecosystems. On the basis of modelling, monitoring and experimental data, we demonstrate that community responses to global change are determined by food-chain length and that the top trophic level, and every second level below, will benefit from climate change, whereas the levels in between will suffer. Hence, phytoplankton, and thereby algal blooms, will benefit from climate change in three-, but not in two-trophic-level systems. Moreover, we show that both phytoplankton (resource) and zooplankton (consumer) advance their spring peak abundances similarly in response to a 3 °C temperature increase; that is, there is no support for a consumer/resource mismatch in a future climate scenario. However, in contrast to other taxa, cyanobacteria—known as toxin-producing nuisance phytoplankton3—benefit from a higher temperature and humic content irrespective of the food-chain composition. Our results are mirrored in natural ecosystems. By mechanistically merging present food-chain theory with large-scale environmental and climate changes, we provide a powerful framework for predicting and understanding future aquatic ecosystems and their provision of ecosystem services and water resources.

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Figure 1: Effect sizes for phytoplankton, zooplankton and fish.
Figure 2: Temporal dynamics in phytoplankton biomass, zooplankton and Microcystis.
Figure 3: Effect sizes for Microcystis.

Change history

  • 18 September 2012

    In the version of this Letter originally published online, the authors Alice Nicolle (A.N.) and P. Anders Nilsson (P.A.N.) were incorrectly credited in the Author contributions section; the correct author contributions should have been “L-A.H., C.B. and A.N. designed the study; A.N., L-A.H., P.H., A.P., C.B., J.B., E.K. and W.G. performed the study; L-A.H., A.N., P.A.N. and P.H. analysed the data…” These errors have now been corrected in all versions of the Letter.


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The study was financed by the Swedish Research Council for the Environment and Spatial Planning (Formas), and the Swedish Research Council (VR) through the Centre for Animal Movement Research (CAnMove) supported by a Linnaeus grant (349-2007-8690). This is a contribution from the strategic research area Biodiversity and Ecosystems in a Changing Climate. J. and A. Bäckman provided the temperature system. L. Hansson assisted in designing the figures and B. Chapman kindly checked the language.

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L-A.H., C.B. and A.N. designed the study; A.N., L-A.H., P.H., A.P., C.B., J.B., E.K. and W.G. performed the study; L-A.H., A.N., P.A.N. and P.H. analysed the data; L-A.H. wrote the paper. All authors commented on the manuscript.

Correspondence to Lars-Anders Hansson.

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Hansson, L., Nicolle, A., Granéli, W. et al. Food-chain length alters community responses to global change in aquatic systems. Nature Clim Change 3, 228–233 (2013) doi:10.1038/nclimate1689

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